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Railway suicides and the role of organisational support

In the past 10 years, 156 people in New Zealand have died in railway fatalities and 60 more have sustained serious injuries [1].  Whilst not all of these are suicides and exact number of railway suicides are not available in New Zealand, suicidal behaviour is a significant contributor to railway deaths and injuries.  In Australia, it estimated that between 150-200 people die by rail suicides per year.

Impact of rail suicides

Railway suicides have a far reaching impact including the traumatisation of witnesses, station staff and drivers, and first responders [2].  In the US, it is estimated that approximately 75% of drivers will be involved in a fatality over the course of their career [3].

Drivers are particularly vulnerable and can experience acute stress reactions immediately after the death. For many, these symptoms persist for more than 6 months afterwards [4] as has been the case of several cases reported in the New Zealand media [5-7].  Common symptoms experienced by drivers are a disconnection from loved ones, loss of purpose, re-experiencing the trauma through nightmares and flashbacks, difficulties relaxing and being jumpy, poor concentration, low mood and feeling suicidal. 

Being involved in a fatality can also have a negative impact on the coping skills and resilience of drivers [4] this has been shown to have a negative impact on their private lives and their perception of work performance. For some, the impact can be so profound that they are unable to continue to work [5, 6].  Drivers who are able to be open and honest about their experience, their coping and mental health, and who are supported by good organisational support are more likely to experience better outcome than those who were unable to be open about their experiences and feel pressure to present as coping when they are not.

Factors that help improve coping of staff 

One of the significant protective factors that has been shown to reduce distress and improve outcomes for drivers has been support from employers [4].  Peer support can be helpful, but should not be a standalone intervention.  People exposed to suicide do need professional support and screening, and training to build their resilience and coping skills.  Many staff can minimize symptoms for fear of impact on their career or that they don’t recognize their change in behaviours as related to the exposure to suicide. For this reason, upskilling support staff is also important to help recognize when their peers may be struggling and how and when to intervene.  Particularly as symptoms of distress may not emerge until months or years down the track.

Another aspect that can be helpful is a systemic understanding of why people die by suicide, warning signs, and strategies to intervene.  There are a number of behaviours common to people who die by rail suicide [8] and these behaviours can help inform strategies to aide suicide prevention.  Overseas, strategies have been put in place to aide suicide prevention including education and upskilling of railway staff and public awareness campaigns that empower the public to intervene.  This has been shown to be successful in creating opportunities for intervention and reducing the exposure to suicide by staff and bystanders.

Given the range of supports required, and a need for a plan to manage suicide exposure before it occurs, it is important for rail organisations to have a strategic plan in place for their staff wellbeing. This plan should consider where support is needed, and what support that might be, and include not only drivers, management and all those that may be impacted by the suicide.


If you could like to talk more about organisational support for wellbeing, please contact us

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1.           Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency, Railway safety statistics. 2020.

2.           Mishara, B.L. and C. Bardon, Systematic review of research on railway and urban transit system suicides. Journal of Affective Disorders, 2016. 193: p. 215-226.

3.           Margiotta, S.M., Effects of'person-under-train'incidents on locomotive engineers. 2000, ProQuest Information & Learning.

4.           Bardon, C. and B.L. Mishara, Systematic review of the impact of suicides and other critical incidents on railway personnel. Suicide and Life‐Threatening Behavior, 2015. 45(6): p. 720-731.

5.           Verdonk, S. Suicide on the front line: a woman died and you just want a smoke. 2017  [cited 2021 25/02/2021]; Available from: https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/suicide-on-the-front-line-a-woman-died-and-you-just-want-a-smoke/WHKEM4R6LGKNJT2OEWGUVLBEYQ/.

6.           Connor, F. Auckland train driver speaks out about mental 'torture' of fatalities on railway tracks. 2020  [cited 2021 25/02/2021]; Available from: https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/new-zealand/2020/08/auckland-train-driver-speaks-out-about-mental-torture-of-fatalities-on-railway-tracks.html.

7.           Stewart, R. Rachel Stewart: A train driver's view of death on the tracks. 2016  [cited 2021 25/02/2021]; Available from: https://www.stuff.co.nz/taranaki-daily-news/opinion/83225293/rachel-stewart-a-train-drivers-view-of-death-on-the-tracks.

8.           Mackenzie, J.-M., et al., Behaviours preceding suicides at railway and underground locations: a multimethodological qualitative approach. BMJ Open, 2018. 8(4): p. e021076.

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